Noah, his family, and thousands of animals entered the ark as the rain began. Every pair of creatures somehow found their place on board, and the rain fell for 40 days.
Leaving the ark took much longer. For months after the rain stopped, the earth remained under water. Even when the ark came to rest on the mountaintop of Ararat, no dry land could be seen.
Slowly the waters receded. Ten months after the rains began, the mountaintops became visible. And 40 days later, Noah opened the window of the ark.
Even with the window open, Noah couldn’t see much. So he sent out the raven to explore.
Why did Noah choose the raven?
Radak offers a chilling explanation: Noah knew that ravens eat carrion. If the raven could find a human or animal corpse, and bring back a bit of meat in his beak, that would be a sign that the waters had receded.
Noah anticipated that the world outside the ark would be ideal for ravens. A world destroyed, populated only by decaying carcasses.
When the raven proved uncooperative, Noah tried again, and sent out the dove.
The dove’s first mission was unsuccessful and she returned to Noah and the ark. The second time, “The dove came to him towards evening, and behold, an olive leaf was torn in her mouth, and Noah knew that the waters had eased from upon the earth.”
Radak emphasizes that the vocalization of “taraf” — torn — indicates that the dove herself tore the leaf from the tree. Noah saw the freshly broken stem. He understood that the dove had not found this olive leaf floating on the water, but growing on a living tree.
What did Noah learn from the dove?
He learned that the trees were visible. Olive trees are not generally very tall, so the water level must have already been rather low. Perhaps most importantly, he learned that the trees were alive. Fresh leaves were growing.
Shut up in the ark, Noah had imagined what awaited him outside. A raven’s world, a world of carrion and death.
The dove brought him one tiny leaf from a living tree. Perhaps that small offering allowed him to begin to imagine a world of life, of green and growing things, of renewal and possibility.
We read the story of Noah in the midst of the olive harvest. The bitter olives will yield oil that is good for both food and light. During the bitter, dark days after the flood, an olive leaf in the beak of a gentle dove brought light and hope to Noah and those in the ark, and perhaps gave them the courage to emerge into the world and begin again.